A recent opinion from the United States Supreme Court’s in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 US ____ (2009) is dramatically changing our legal system and how Courts view the right to your day in court and the right to a jury trial. The opinion even drew criticism from one of the more conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg told a group of Federal Judges that the decision in the Iqbal case was both “important and dangerous.” “In my view,” Justice Ginsburg said, “the court’s majority messed up the federal rules” governing civil litigation.
The Iqbal decision is a case that concerned the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The court ruled that a Muslim man who was swept up on immigration charges and detained could not sue two Bush administration officials for what he said was the terrible abuse he suffered while in detention. In Iqbal, Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim who was working as a cable television installer on Long Island, said he was subjected to intrusive searches and vicious beatings after being arrested on identity fraud charges two months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
For more than half a century, it has been well established that in federal cases a plaintiff must file a lawsuit that provides “a short and plain statement of the claim” to put the Defendant on fair notice of the claims and facts involved in the case. The parties would then engage in discovery that would enable the parties to discover the truth behind those facts and claims to see if the case had merit. After the parties engaged in discovery, there are procedures available that enable a Defendant to request the Court to dismiss the case claiming that the case has no merit. The discovery process is very important to parties because we all know that most defendants do not admit that they did something wrong or publicize their negligent conduct when someone is injured. To the contrary, defendants do their best to try to keep information about their improper or illegal activities a secret.
The Iqbal decision now requires plaintiffs to come forward with concrete facts at the outset before they have had an opportunity to investigate the facts thoroughly to even uncover truthful information that has been hidden which would show the defendant is liable to the Plaintiff. As a result of the Iqbal decision, federal judges are being instructed to dismiss lawsuits as implausible. Courts have already begun dismissing lawsuit citing the Iqbal decision that the cases are implausible. One federal judge dismissed a disability discrimination suit. Another federal appeals court dismissed a breach of contract and securities fraud suit. In a federal case that was filed by members of the Duke University lacrosse team that wear falsely accused of raping a woman, and were not only later proven innocent but also resulted in disciplinary action against the prosecutor for his wrongful conduct in prosecuting the defendants, a federal judge has asked for briefing on whether their lawsuit can pass muster under Iqbal. Clearly, this decision is going to radically change the legal landscape for many parties.
As a result of the Iqbal decision, a party can lose the right to a jury trial and his day in court because a judge does not have like the lawsuit even if the party has not been given the chance to prove that his case has merit. This decision puts a lot of power in the hands of one person, and can directly eliminate a fundamental right of all Americans to a trial by jury. Thus, it is not surprising that this change in federal law is considered to be both “important and dangerous” by Justice Ginsberg.
Most legal scholars concede that one of the biggest legal battlegrounds over the past 10 years has been the battle of corporate America to eliminate the constitutional right to a jury trial. More and more, corporations are forcing employees to sign agreements that they will arbitrate all employment disputes. In addition, corporations that enter into contracts with their customers are increasing adding language to those contracts at the suggestion of their attorneys and insurance companies that try to force legal disputes to be arbitrated instead of being tried before a jury because of fears that juries will treat the parties fairly.
Most Americans understand that the right to a jury trial and the right to have your day in court is an important right. It is not only important, but it is a fundamental right that is guaranteed under the Constitution. Under the Federal Constitution, the right to a jury trial is a fundamental right. It was significant enough to the Founding Fathers of our country that the right to a jury trial is mentioned in two of the amendments of the Bill of Rights. Under the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees all Americans:
- In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Under the Seventh Amendment, the United States Constitution guarantees every American:
- In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
In addition to the protections under Federal law, Texas has also enacted a State Constitution which also provides that “The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” In addition, the Texas Constitution acknowledges the necessity of the right to have your day in court which is directly linked to the concept of the right to a jury trial. Specifically, the Texas Constitution provides that “All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law.”
Nevertheless, if you turn on your radio or watch some of the political shows on TV, you will no doubt hear the cry that someone should not have the right to file a lawsuit or cries against runaway juries. However, those same pundits rarely talk about surveys from judges that say the idea of a runaway jury is a myth. The United States Department of Justice conducted a study which concluded that the fears of a runaway jury were unjustified. Attached is a copy of a summary of the study. In addition, you can read the Department of Justice study by going to the following link. (Article no longer available online).
A survey of Texas judges further confirms that the fears of runaway juries and fears that juries award large amounts for damages that are not supported by the evidence is simply not true. Among the findings of the study are:
- More than 83 percent of the Texas district court judges had never observed a single instance of a “runaway” jury verdict on either actual or exemplary damages during the preceding four years.
- More than 85 percent of judges had not, or had in only one instance, granted relief during the past four years due to an excessive award of actual damages. No judge in the entire sampling had granted such relief during the prior four years in more than three cases.
- More than 83 percent of Texas judges had not witnessed a single jury award compensatory damages that were too high.
- 15 percent of Texas trial judges observed that juries do not award punitive damages even when those judges believed such an award was warranted.
- 44 percent of the judges had not personally observed a single frivolous lawsuit in their courtroom during the prior four years.
- 99 percent had observed no more than between 1 percent to 25 percent (the lowest percentage category available) of the cases filed before them as being frivolous.
- 85 percent of the responding judges had not punished a lawyer for violating the courts’ rules more than one time during the previous four years.
- More than 86 percent of the responding judges believed there is no need for further legislation addressing frivolous lawsuits.
Please continue to monitor the Montes Herald Law Group, LLP blog for updates on new laws and court rulings that have a direct impact on the citizens of Texas. Montes Herald Law Group, LLP is located in Irving (Las Colinas), Texas. View our website at www.MontesLawGroup.com and our blog to find out more about our attorneys and the cases we handle.